We were versatile, the old saying came to the fore with whatever job they handed to you, ‘It’s a piece of piss to a trained Digger.’ Translated for my overseas readers who may be cringing as we speak, ‘It’s a piece of cake for a soldier.’ As you may well realise we were handed the lot and don’t get me wrong, it was all about new experiences. Let us ponder a while on the late 60’s.
There were the musicals, Hair and Jesus Christ superstar. Free Love, (that’s for another blog) anti-Vietnam war protestors, it’s a free country people can protest all they like. Then we had the Labour Party, at the time they were in opposition government and you had never seen such a bigger pack of ratbags. We called them the new KFC pack, full of left wings and bums. Once again a person is entitled to their politics, when it started affecting our troops in Vietnam then it became a different story. First the waterside workers (Stevedores) refused to handle any ships carrying supplies there, which included rations, clothing, parcels, ammo the lot. Then the postmen refused to deliver letters sent to or returning from Vietnam. Members of the Labour Party were going to Hanoi to talk with Ho Chi Min; University students were sending food and medical aid to the Viet Cong. We definitely weren’t feeling the love that flowed over everyone else.
Working down on the docks me hearties. The word came down the line, “Pack your bags, we’re going to the docks.” Now this sounded exciting. You can only fire so many rounds and drive so many miles in training before you get bored. A real job had landed in our laps. Before we knew it the trucks rolled in and with our bulging kit bags and US army helmet liners on we were away. First stop, One Commando HQ on Chowder Bay Road, near the cliffs at Georges Head, we would be staying at the old barracks there. The whole place was old the military had a presence there dating back to 1801. What a spot, a huge tract of cliff top land with extensive views of Sydney and out through the heads, worth tens of millions of dollars in real estate. The barracks were, habitable. We were issued with camp stretchers that took two people to put together, a sturdy wooden frame, springs that weren’t out of place on a Ford truck and some with canvas that had rotted. Guess who got one of them? Yep me and it came apart the first night. All tucked up in my sleeping bag I nestled on the stretcher and a sound, not unlike a ripping, sonorous fart came from beneath. A dozen eyes flicked my way and what did they see? Me on the floor with said stretcher up around my neck
The following morning and under police escort we arrived at the docks. We’d been broken into shifts and dressed in jungle greens, wearing helmet liners, gripping hold of thick leather gloves we alighted manfully from the trucks. The waterside workers were huddled fifty metres away, some attempt was made by them to demonstrate but when they saw the helmets they must have thought we were the riot squad. Walking out through the huge terminal sheds we stopped and stared, the JEPARIT, a Navy cargo ship seemed to tower above us in her berth at the wharf. We were quickly broken up into two groups, cargo and dockside workers, I ended up dockside. There wasn’t much in the way of forklifts or heavy machinery, the striking workers had seen to that. This link will take you to a picture of the Jeparit.
I felt at home there. As a boy in England we lived within walking distance to the shipyards, I went there often and stared at the ships. So the smell of salt, the squawking of seagulls and the screeching and groaning as ships moved against the wharves seemed quite calming. The days flowed as we unloaded the cargo: Centurion Tanks, one had come adrift and its barrel had pierced the hull, equipment no longer required, old rations and ammo. We worked like dogs. It was after all for our mates overseas. We played hard as well. After our shift we were on down time. Even though the fleshpots of Sydney town were on the other side of the harbour it posed no problems.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mosman,_New_South_Wales For those who ran short of ready cash a suitable port of call was nearby in the suburb of Mosman. A wine bar, its name escapes me now, we adopted it and from then on it was known as the Mosman Plonk Shop. *plonk is the noise a cork makes when it comes out of the bottle* A fine military tradition ensued. Troops throughout time have endeavoured to find and overrun the nearest purveyor of fine wines and ales. *Marcus, lay down your Gladius, take off your helmet we have found ourselves a fine establishment.* Maybe something like that, you get my drift. Our conduct may have been rowdy, the noses of the local lads may have been put out of joint but crikey didn’t we have fun there. That much fun that I could never drink red wine again without feeling a sense of urgency in my nether regions. I also lost my undies there, well not lost, I donated them. My famous three-quarter length, winter long johns, and I must say that I cut a dashing figure in them. They only left my person due to the influence of at least two bottles of red that in retrospect may have even been filtered through a similar pair of undies.
The Plonk Shop was a tiny, trendy Beatnik style establishment. When you walked through the door the bar ran down the left, tables and chairs were on the right and a trophy board was fixed to the wall at the end. On this cork board were one or two tatty bits of paper with coming events and a fine collection of ladies knickers. These were pinned to the wall in all their well-worn, hmm *glory.* I remember one night having a vague conversation with the owner, then I wandered into the gent’s toilet – alone. Staggering out a little later doing up my jeans, I waved my immaculate unwashed undies above my head. Egged on by the cheers and encouragement of my mates, plus whistles from the ladies, I pinned them to the wall. Yes we drank, we were young and carefree and didn’t give a damn about our livers. There were pubs near the docks that opened at 0600 hours, for the workers. I couldn’t handle having a cold beer at the time of day – some blokes could – on their cornflakes of all things.
By the 19th December 1969 we had unloaded and reloaded the JEPARIT in record time, despite the distractions and drinking. The bosses at the wharves were impressed, for amateurs we made good wharfies. A job well done said our Colonel, naturally he showed up, after, now we want volunteers to unload the JOHN MONASH, a 1400 ton Army cargo ship. Christmas was coming, the blokes looked like they wanted to go on strike until the magic word *extra leave* came up. A mini stampede ensued and I found myself amongst the hardy souls who were going to unload a – wait for it – ship load of tank ammunition – ammunition that had been stored in Malaysia for years. It had been sent there for use by the 1st Armoured Regiment in Vietnam, (some of it had been there a lot longer) being close it could be sent over easily when required. Now an overabundance of ammo lay in the hold of this ship and most of it had come loose. The rounds were still in their individual tubes which had been left out in the weather. Nobody really knew the status of the ammunition after being stored outside in a tropical climate for so long. The wooden pallets were rotten; the hold looked like a cyclone had been through it.
The extra leave turned out to be two days, still not too bad. Our hardy bunch of Stevedores, a Corporal called Max Mooney and about eight of us stayed on at the Commando barracks. We were ferried out into Sydney Harbour near Rose Bay, supposedly the ship was far enough away from land in case it went up, a charming thought. Our first day had us questioning a couple of things: 1. ‘Who the bloody hell loaded this ship?’ 2. ‘What the bloody hell were we thinking, two days leave for this?’
I kid you not, it appeared that the ship had been turned upside down, shook a little and righted. Strange insects, huge spiders and scorpions and other noisome creatures lived amongst the pallets. Every brown painted, metal tube about a metre long and weighing between 36 and 41 kilos had to be picked up and reloaded into huge cargo nets – which were big enough to let the tubes slide out – one did and came spearing down to land with a thump in the hold. Gulp. The nets were hoisted out and lowered onto cargo Lighters moored to the side of the ship. Then the tubes were loaded down into the hold of the concrete covered Lighters. I spent time in both places and believe me we earned our extra leave.
My original intent was to join the Navy but my mother didn’t seem too impressed about it, so I opted for the Army. Sitting on that ship, munching lunch and looking out over the harbour felt right somehow. Even the work, moving below decks, the rise and fall of the ship, it felt like I belonged. This is the place for a wild weather anecdote. Sydney is renowned for its storms, they come in through the heads, all black clouds and screaming winds, driving the rain ahead of them. One of the Lighter crew let out a yell, ‘Get aboard the ship, now.’ – ‘Yeah right – oh crap.’ The rain sliced into the flat water of the harbour, the wind coming behind whipped that water up into two metre waves. I’ve never climbed a rope ladder so quickly – ever. By the time I’d swung my leg over the rail I was soaked and freezing. The rain didn’t hit, it lashed you like a wet cat o’ nine tails. A mad scramble for cover ensued and we looked out of the portholes as everything around us vanished in a wet sheet of grey. The ship heaved and lurched then settled as the storm passed, what an experience.
Enough of the wistful dreaming and purple prose, let’s get back to the sweat, aching muscles and working as a team all under a good Corporal. A funny bugger but a good man, the days flew. They flew that fast Christmas Eve sneaked up on us before we knew it, ‘Err, Corporal Mooney when are we going home?’ – ‘Shit, it’s Christmas.’ Before we knew it the ferry appeared alongside. You’ve never spied such a happy bunch of hearty seafaring types as we stood at the prow of our ferry. A scene reminiscent of Titanic comes to mind – minus the hugging – we hung on as the ferry cut through the chop. Someone came up with the bright idea of celebrating our release from stevedoring. We’ll blow up condoms, tie them off and release them into the wild. Why not, we weren’t using them. A quick whip around and we raked up twenty condoms from the nine of us. * Cavalrymen are always prepared, overconfident but prepared.* After some serious huffing and puffing we released them into the wild, where they could roam free – and draw the attention of the Customs boat that quickly heaved around, and fog horns whoop whooping, chased our ferry down.
They came alongside and two of them boarded the ferry, poor Max, didn’t they give him a hard time. At first they thought we were drug smugglers, *plonk smugglers maybe* then they had the hide to get up him about polluting the harbour. Crikey, a quick shower of rain and the harbour would be awash with used condoms. Somewhat like a jellyfish swarm. The upshot of it all, we bummed a ride back to the barracks, packed up and trucked home. The driver dropped us off next to our huts and the Regiment appeared to be hmm, DESERTED. Where is everybody? Where were they? They took a bloody early mark and left for Christmas, that’s where.
The long and winding road. Max found the Orderly Officer and I have to say he had us out of there toot-sweet. Leave passes in hand, holiday wages bursting out of pockets we were out that front gate and heading home. I didn’t have a car, couldn’t afford an airplane ticket and anyone who did drive to Queensland had long gone. The Orderly Officer, bless him drove me the mile or so to the main gates and left me to the mercy of strangers. I had seventeen rides between Holsworthy and the sleepy township of Fernvale in Queensland, where my family were living, just under 600 miles. I will educate you with the outstanding rides. From Liverpool to the north side of Sydney in a Mini Minor, it only had one seat – the driver’s. I sat on a wooden box in the back passenger side with my legs stuck under the dashboard. A long ride with a Preacher who tried to alternately save and then dissuade me from continuing being a killer, his term not mine. The best was a ride in a 1940 Chevy with a rock and roll band, between Tamworth and Uralla. They were a great bunch of blokes, country boys who wanted to hit the heights of the rock and roll world. We sang and laughed as I sat amongst the guitars and speakers on the huge back seat. They dropped me off on the obscenely dark outskirts of Uralla and I began walking north. Now Christmas in Oz is usually bloody hot and I was dressed in my summer uniform, short sleeve polyester shirt and slacks. Dashing I know but not warm enough for the New England ranges, it has snowed there at odd times in summer. An old bloke picked me up and dropped me outside Armidale about five in the morning.
Cold, I was bloody freezing. I had a plastic raincoat in my kit and I put that on and stayed warm by shivering. I’d never seen so much frost in years, talk about white Christmas. After an hour of shaking in my raincoat and a dozen people going past a kind soul picked me up. The others must have thought I was up to no good the way the front of the coat was shaking back and forth. The upshot was I finally arrived home about midmorning, the prodigal had returned and I had completed my first year in the army.
Next week: Preamble, Crew Commander’s Course and Hospital part one.